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Here's why the Bexar County Sheriff's Office says it needs a Mercedes-Benz to operate its drone fleet

Sheriff's drone unit testing out drone.JPG
Robbin Cresswell
/
Bexar County Sheriff's Department
Sheriff's drone unit testing out drone

Bexar County Commissioners recently approved the purchase of a Mercedes-Benz Sprinter van to be used by the sheriff's department as a mobile control center to fly its drones. It should join the sheriff's fleet of other vehicles in January or February.

Deputies assigned to the drone unit currently operate them from an assortment of Chevy Tahoes for a number of investigations, such as homicides, becoming a national pioneer in that area. The drones are also used for stand-offs and search and rescue operations. They were first used to help reconstruct the scenes of fatal traffic crashes and their use grew from there.

County Commissioner Tommy Calvert asked the sheriff why the van was purchased from Mercedes-Benz of Boerne for $79,000, and not for a cheaper price from Ford, like other vans in the sheriff's fleet. The sheriff's department reports the van was in stock, and half-a-dozen other recent Ford van orders have been delayed for months by supply chain issues.

Sheriff Javier Salazar told Calvert the cost of the van will also be paid for by a grant, so there is no cost to taxpayers. He added overall costs will also be cheaper than a Ford because the Mercedes-Benz is already equipped, and the van has the ability to store bulky drone equipment and charge drones.

"It's got beefed up electrical because the hard part about drones, the difficult part of drones, is the battery life. And you got to have enough chargers to keep enough batteries charged so that you're able to maintain air support with those drones. You bring it in, change the battery, send back up," the sheriff told the commissioners court.

The van will also have space for deputies to fly the drones from inside.

"The other thing that this van is going to have is an actual work station so the deputies that are piloting these drones can actually work there in the confines of the van and monitor what's being seen on the screen by the drones," Salazar said.

Salazar said the drone fleet has been used in investigations locally, around the state, and out-of-state.

Department spokesman Deputy Johnny Garcia said deputies learned how to spot shallow graves from the air by working alongside experts at the "body farm" at Texas State University in San Marcos, which studies how real bodies decay in a variety of recreated crime scene scenarios.

Garcia said a buried decaying body can change soil and vegetation coloration that can be spotted from the air. He said graves as old as a decade are sometimes detectable by a drone.

Besides local investigations, Garcia said two local deputies — 6 feet, 3 inches and 240 pounds each — nicknamed "Thunder and Lightning," traveled to assist the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation in the search for the body of boy in that state whose father was accused of killing and burying him.

Their assistance did not directly lead to any remains, but helped cover the search territory.

Garcia said the sheriff's drones were also used in a successful investigation by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, which was looking for a suspect dumping waste, like oil, into a waterway at Columbus, Texas, causing millions of dollars in downstream environmental damage.

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Brian Kirkpatrick can be reached at brian@tpr.org and on Twitter at @TPRBrian